Punctuation Review #3: En Dashes

By Maeve Maddox

Dashes are not the same as hyphens. An en dash is wider than a hyphen, and an em dash is wider than an en dash:

hyphen: –
en dash: –
em dash: —

The terms en dash and em dash originated in the days when text to be printed was set in type by hand. Each letter and punctuation mark was cast on a separate piece of lead type. An en dash was a line the width of a letter n. An em dash was a line the width of a letter m.

Not all style guides agree as to the use of en and em dashes. This post will deal only with the use of the en dash as recommended in The Chicago Manual of Style.

According to Chicago, “the principal use of the en dash is to connect numbers and, less often, words.”

When used with continuing numbers, such as dates, times and page numbers, the en dash represents the words “up to and including” or “through.” For example:

The Great Depression (1929–1939) was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialized world.

Note: If the word from precedes a pair of dates or numbers, the dash is not used. Instead, use the word to. Likewise, if the word between precedes the pair, the word and is used instead of a dash. For example:

The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939.

Carole Lombard appeared in 15 short films between 1927 and 1929.

Used with scores and directions, the en dash signifies the word to:

The Cubs defeated the Cardinals 8–3.

The Chicago–New York train leaves at 9 a.m.

State universities that have more than one campus use the en dash to indicate which campus is meant:

The University of Arkansas–Fayetteville
The University of Arkansas–Little Rock
The University of Arkansas–Fort Smith

Chicago notes that the en dash is sometimes used as a minus sign, but discourages this use because in the Unicode system, the minus sign and the en dash are distinct characters. Using a minus sign for an en dash “may hinder searches in electronic publications.”

Many writers still use hyphens to create dashes in their copy because they don’t know there’s a way to produce “real” en and em dashes in their word processing program. If you’re one of them, here’s the secret:

Windows users can make an en dash by pressing Alt+0150. To make an em dash, they press Alt+0151.

Mac users can make an en dash by pressing the Option key and the hyphen key. For an em dash, they press Option, Shift and the hyphen key.

Note: Posts about punctuation trigger passionate comments—more than just about any other kind. The readers’ comments on the following posts offer a wealth of information and differing opinions about the use of en and em dashes:

How to Use Dashes
5 Ways to Repair Misused Em Dashes
5 Sentences Saved by Em Dashes
En Dashes Clarify Compound Phrasal Adjectives

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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5 Responses to “Punctuation Review #3: En Dashes”

  • Bill

    I looked at the other posts and their comments and you’re right; lots of passion there! One issue I saw discussed but not resolved was that of putting a space before and after en and em dashes. I couldn’t find where CMoS addresses it, but all their examples show no space. Amy Einshohn’s excellent The Copyeditor’s Handbook agrees, as does Mary Embree’s Starting Your Career as a Freelance Editor.
    Then you get to the Associated Press Stylebook: “Put a space on both sides of a dash in all uses except the start of a paragraph and sports agate summaries.” Nearly every newspaper and magazine I see, including the N.Y. Times, follows this rule. I’d guess it started because of the old ways news was sent over the wire and may have fit will with the demands of prose in narrow columns.

  • Gary Lum (@garydlum)

    Thanks very much. I’ve always thought when writing a negative value like minus five degrees Celsius the correct form should be –5 °C using an en dash. In Windows and Mac OSs can you tell me the key strokes for the minus sign (I assume it’s not a dash). Thank you.

  • Ken

    When used in a sentence, en dashes look better with surrounding spaces, and em dashes usually look better without them. Depends on the font, but this is general convention I follow.

  • Geraldine

    Is it my eyes or do the hyphen and en dash in the box right at the beginning look the same?

  • NickyT

    Microsoft Word users can use Ctrl+NumPad – (minus) to get an en dash. Ctrl+Alt+NumPad – will get you an em dash.

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